OPEN APP
Home >News >India >PB Mehta's resignation a grievous blow to free speech in India: Raghuram Rajan

PB Mehta's resignation a grievous blow to free speech in India: Raghuram Rajan

Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said Ashoka University's current actions undermined it efforts at being considered India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. (Mint)Premium
Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said Ashoka University's current actions undermined it efforts at being considered India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. (Mint)

  • Raghuram Rajan said he hoped praised Pratap B. Mehta will continue to be, one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India
  • The former RBI governor said that as an institution, the university should not take political sides

NEW DELHI: Free speech suffered a blow in India this week, former RBI governor and economist Raghuram Rajan wrote on Saturday in a social media post, following the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University earlier this week.

“Free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week. Professor Pratap Mehta, one of India’s finest political scientists, resigned from Ashoka University. Ashoka, for those who do not know, till this week was considered India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. Unfortunately, its actions this week make that less probable," said Rajan in a long social post.

“The reality is that professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments. It is not that he has much sympathy for the opposition either. As a true academic, he is an equal opportunity critic. He is, and I hope, will continue to be, one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India," Rajan wrote.

Mehta had resigned from Ashoka University after the varsity founders disagreed with his writings which have been critical of the Union government’s policies. Apparently, the founders of the university made it “abundantly clear" to Mehta that his association with the University may be considered a “political liability."

Following Mehta’s departure, Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic advisor of the Union government, too resigned from Ashoka University as a professor. Subramanian wrote in his resignation letter that “even Ashoka—with its private status and backing by private capital—can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka."

Rajan highlighted this in his post as well and wrote that liberalism has been set back by the actions of Ashoka University. He said, Mehta and Subramanian’s resignation statements, would suggest that Ashoka’s founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic. As an institution, the university should not take political sides, Rajan said.

Here is the complete text of Rajan's social media post:

“Free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week. Professor Pratap Mehta, one of India’s finest political scientists, resigned from Ashoka University. Ashoka, for those who do not know, till this week was considered India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. Unfortunately, its actions this week make that less probable.

Professor Mehta’s resignation came in the middle of the teaching quarter, and was so sudden that he pleaded in his resignation letter with the university to make arrangements for his driver, who would otherwise be left jobless. It is unlikely that such a resignation was premeditated.

Mehta’s resignation was followed by professor Arvind Subramanian’s resignation. professor Subramanian, a renowned economist (and, full disclosure, a co-author of mine), is a former chief economic advisor to the Government of India. Two lines from his resignation letter are especially noteworthy: “That even Ashoka—with its private status and backing by private capital—can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka."

The reality is that professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments. It is not that he has much sympathy for the opposition either. As a true academic, he is an equal opportunity critic. He is, and I hope will continue to be, one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India.

Yet liberalism has been set back by the actions of Ashoka University. It is unclear what exactly motivated Ashoka’s founders to remove their hitherto laudable protection. In his resignation letter, Pratap Mehta writes “After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the university may be considered a political liability." That, coupled with professor Subramanian’s statements, would suggest that Ashoka’s founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic. As an institution, the university should not take political sides.

However, as the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee said, “the neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest." Put differently, the role of a great university is to provide a protected space for its academicians and students to engage freely in open public debate, much as Indian universities like Nalanda and Taxila used to.

And that freedom is necessary because as the Kalven committee emphasizes, “By design and by effect, it [the university] is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting." A good university creates an environment where ideas for progress and change arise. Static societies where criticism is silenced are doomed societies, which eventually succumb to the weight of their authoritarianism and groupthink.

Ashoka’s founders should have realized that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like Professor Mehta to speak, for in doing so, they were enabling Ashoka to make its greatest contribution to India’s wellbeing – identifying what is going wrong and encouraging us all to remedy it. If Ashoka’s founders believe they have comprised with the powers that be in the greater interests of the university, they are wrong. Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul. And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressures will go away? This is indeed a sad development for India."

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Close
×
Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout